Serious Question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Fears.

Fear is a paralyzing force and yet, I don’t understand why I’ve lived with it for so long. Someone once shared a photo of bears and said, “Don’t feed the Fears.” This stuck with me a lot because everyday, I find a piece of myself to sacrifice to the Fears.

Why? It’s not wise to do things when we already know their negative consequences and you’d think, like Pavlov’s dog, we could wean ourselves off fear especially when we become aware of how fear conditions us to live a certain way. I like to say I act according to reason but if my experiences have anything to show for themselves, it’s that I don’t really. Otherwise, why would I let fear get the best of me–as it often does?

George Addair offers compelling food for thought. He says, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”  So, I’ve asked myself (and others) this question:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I noticed, judging by the first few answers that I got, that this was indeed a deep, fundamental question–and as these things go in our culture, we make a quip of it first to test the waters. I do this often, offering a small dose of comedy in serious situations, just to ease the mood. Then, when it seems like people have gotten over the initial awkwardness, a space is built to house genuine conversation.

Today’s topic? The truth about who we are as we know ourselves to be.

I noticed too that though others genuinely made the effort and wore their hearts on their sleeves, some were not as forthcoming. It’s also the nature of the question to be so arresting that we can no longer come to terms with it–or we become afraid of the abyss we are staring into, because secretly we know that it, too, is staring at us! Jeepers creepers!

As for me, I asked this question publicly because I wanted to confront myself privately. I acknowledge my own need for witnesses–friends–to see what I’m struggling with and help me discover what this question is trying to arouse in me.

Here is my shortlist in no particular order:

If I were not afraid, I would…

  1. Apply to the graduate schools of my dreams and study what I want. Poetry, Literature, Security Studies…the list goes on.
  2. See more of the Philippines! Buy a ticket to Tawi-Tawi and work my way up to Luzon slowly, deliberately–using any and all modes of transportation.
  3. Own up to my scars and tell those who hurt me that they did (to let it go, you know?)
  4. Write for National Geographic. Legitimately, in honour of my grandfather who shared his collection with me and of my uncle who so kindly funded our addiction.
  5. Learn to dive and swim in the open sea–because I’m a blind bat who freezes when the bottom disappears.
  6. Go WWOOFing in a county where no one speaks English.
  7. Travel solo for six months without a plan and let only curiosity move me…but I have to see the desert.
  8. Be a journalist–live with outcasts–migrants, gypsies, pirates, trace the Filipino diaspora, and chase after every story I’ve ever dreamt of writing about. (God, there are so many.)
  9. Learn enough of a language to speak confidently (because speaking broken French and Spanish out loud terrifies me)
  10. Say NO so that my YES retains its potency.

Fear will not disappear magically if I choose to pursue any of these things. If anything, I’ve learned that it will only intensify because the closer we are to being our authentic selves, the more the world rubs against us abrasively. I can live with that for as long as I remember where I came from and how, at 18, I wrote down a similar list of fears that no longer frighten me today.

Perhaps this is really all we need every now and then? To acknowledge what scares us, tip our hats to these fears, and carry on.

Education and Elections: Running for K to 12.

It’s always when elections are upon us that I feel a huge dis-ease slowly building, rising like a wave inside me. It used to be a sensation triggered by theory–by my mind telling me that something was amiss when Politician X shifted parties or “changed his mind” suddenly about things as if he hadn’t believed them to begin with. Then today, no longer working on the assumptions of the naïve, I saw for myself how ambition and a bid for relevance turned an otherwise sweet supporter of the K to 12 Program into a sour opponent. He spoke with an air of expertise and asked questions as if his truest intent was to uphold the right of every Filipino to access quality education. Surely, his current antics as a Representative will win him a seat in the Senate. It helps, too, that he carries the name of an old guard, memorable to many. But then, with all sobriety, I wonder what the real cost of his attempt at relevance is to the Filipino people? Don’t we all stand to lose more when we elect leaders who are only driven by a thirst for power and have no appetite for service? When we elect leaders who are unfit, lacking in experience and aspiration–not for the self but for the nation? For our people?

I sat red-faced today listening to him talk, recognizing the need to hide my emotions–because feeling, they say, gets in the way of professionalism and wins us enemies. I “fixed” my face, smiled, spoke in a sweet tone until it was over and I forgot all about it.

Before entering the Department of Education, I was outspoken about education because I trusted my intuition. I went out of my comfort zone, traveled to different localities, listened openly to the heartaches of teachers, students, and parents alike. I withheld judgment knowing that it was an easy path that would lead nowhere, except to take me further from the truth. I won myself a slot to a “prestigious” fellowship because I knew that “the best decisions concerning development are not made from comfortable positions.” Then, upon entering the Department, I grew a certain impotence from having nurtured fear. I stopped writing about education because I felt I didn’t know enough and could not teach myself what I needed to know to be credible. I did not want to be wrong and/or outspoken because that’s a terrible combination. I imagined the impact my mistakes would make on this already tired agency–burdened by the size and scope of its responsibility–whose people could use more than just my two cents. A lot of our teachers and personnel work so hard, quietly, to make education a reality for many of our learners. What if I eclipsed that because I was wrong? Maybe (you think that) I think too much of myself–I do. :) But, seriously, having seen how people react to my posts, I know I’ve grown a following. You are good audience whose time, talent, and patience I don’t want to waste especially seeing as a few lines shared here can trigger August movements in Luneta for good governance or the delivery of toys to Zamboanga’s children caught in the crossfires.

I apologize for having relinquished the responsibility to hold an opinion on education–on the need for K to 12, specifically. I made a fake offering of my silence because I was afraid to be wrong. My ego could not bear it but I know better now. What changed? I was struck by what my boss (Sec. Armin Luistro FSC) said to the press today when asked about our readiness for K to 12 amid calls for its suspension:

“Ready na ready na tayo! Para tayong tumatakbo ng marathon nito eh. Ang kulang nalang natin, “the last mile.” Tapos [biglang] sasabihin sa atin, “Hindi mo kaya.” “Eh, nakikita ko na eh, nakikita ko na yung finish line! Anong kailangan ko? Extra boost at tulong para sa lahat kasi talaga namang hindi kaya ng DepEd mag-isa ito. [Nandito na tayo]—kulang nalang, a little prayer and a little support for the DepEd team who is actually implementing [K to 12]. Aaminin ko, hindi kami perfect. Maraming, maraming mga pwedeng baguhin at i-improve. Bukas na bukas kami dyan. Pero sana sabay tayo—sabay sa batikos, sabay din yung tulong na [sabihing] “Kaya mo yan!”

That’s a leader: One who, without flinching, recognizes our inadequacies, knows there is bound to be other ways to get things done and is willing to listen to whoever can help us do our work better. He is not afraid as I am to make mistakes because he knows it’s par for the course–but more than that, he knows that building on a reform requires engaging everyone–naysayers and supporters alike. Why? Because relevance to him is measured by how well we do the work we set out to do. It’s measured by our commitment not to our office’s reputation but to our mandate: to protect and promote the right of every Filipino to quality, equitable, culture-based, and complete basic education.

Concerning the young representative, the wave of my dis-ease and anger toward him will surely crash at the shore. The sea, I know, will grow calm again, erasing my memory of his opportunism in favor of just having to “deal with the necessary evil.” It will be as if nothing’s happened and I will go by my business as usual–I will see my anxiety over elections as simply an ebbing and flowing of events that mark our nation’s history. It’s in our DNA as Filipinos to search for narratives to believe in, for heroes to save us and so, even the most unlikely become iconic and saintly in our eyes. Perhaps this time (and as early as now) I just want to register, for myself, that in the coming elections I’m not buying into that bullshit anymore. I will look for people who uphold good, time-tested qualities and values which I know exist among a quiet minority. And having known the effects of being uneducated, kept in perpetual poverty and indebtedness, separated from a world of opportunity by the inability to read, write, and understand–I certainly will not lose the will to speak up for every Filipino’s right to an education they deserve. K to 12 is it and in the coming days I will write more about what I know (and don’t know)–because this reform has the capacity to take us from where we are to where we want to be–and we best be prepared to understand how, why, and for whom it works.

Peace & Pata Island.

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Pata Island, Sulu, 2014.

“Salaam alaikum kanyu katan. Ako si Nursima H. Tolentino, Grade 3 pupil. Ito po ang ginuhit ko, isang pulis. Gusto ko sa aking paglaki maging pulis at maging isang tagabantay ng bayan.”

“Gusto ko pong tumulong sa mga mahihirap at may sakit.”

“Sana po matupad ko ang pangarap kong maging isang guro.”

Scenes from better days, worth remembering today. We ventured to Pata Island (mentioned today by Mohagher Iqbal as among the sites where gruesome massacres occurred in Mindanao) to turnover classrooms and we were greeted by young students who were asked to draw what they hoped to be.

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We were joined by no less than Gen. Guerrero of WestMinComm–a proud product of the Philippine Public School System. I keep these images in mind and replay the video I took of them speaking whenever I feel as if I’ve lost hope in our nation. Why? Two things: First, out of tragedy can spring hope–as it does in Pata today, where children can dream and are not bound to repeat mistakes of the past. Second, individual acts matter–the commitment of few to their communities and the will of others to see a future for our children through education–this is what has taught me to work hard and hope even more. If you doubt that there can be peace in Mindanao, just you watch. It will happen. These kids will make it happen.

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Trusting what is difficult.

Yesterday we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila which took place from February 3 to March 3, 1945. This month, in solidarity with older friends of mine who are still alive and have lived to tale the harrowing tale of Manila burning, I would like to take some time to really think about the implications of war–to think about the truths that are passed on to us and also interrogate our forgetfulness. As I type this, news of Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh of Jordan fills my feed. He has just been burnt to death in a cage by ISIS militants. Last week, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded. Here in the Philippines, we lost a great deal in the Mamasapano incident. My thoughts are with their families–but I am also alarmed as an educator. I ask myself where our ideas have taken us and I also want to know why, despite being better informed, our ideas about war and violence have not changed very much? Why have we allowed fear to get the better of us–and if we do choose peace, why do I sense that we are afraid still? Apt reflections for Valentine’s day, too. I’m reminded of Rilke who in his 7th letter to young Kappus writes: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” Love is difficult. Peace is difficult. But I can only trust what is difficult.

Lessons from Luqman.

In my anger over the deaths of so many men, I forgot to pray. Allah, in his graciousness, found me weary and comforted me by way of Luqman, the wise man after whom the 31st sura of the Qur’an is named.

God created us as one soul and as one soul God will bring us back to life. (Qur’an – Luqman 31.28)

Luqman was an Ethiopian slave. One day he was bought and his master, sensing something extraordinary about his captive, asked him to slaughter a sheep and bring him its worst parts. Luqman did as he was told and returned with the sheep’s tongue and its heart. The master, puzzled, sent him back to slaughter another sheep and this time asked that he return with its best parts. Luqman set forth again to butcher the sheep and returned to his master bearing its tongue and its heart.

How could the worst in a man also be the best? Luqman answered: If a man is pure, the tongue and the heart are his sweetest parts and if he is wicked, they too are as wicked!

Indeed, there are no words to express the great loss of life and the even greater loss of answers to countless questions I have unresolved in my heart. But I do believe, as it is written in the holy Qur’an, that God created us as one soul—and I do pray that moving forward, I find the will to keep my tongue and my heart pure. Amen.

A Mourning Diary: Things I Need to Explain to Myself.

Having always been in a state of mourning, carrying with me an infinite supply of things, people, and places to feel for–I find it helps to write. To explain things to myself, to delve deeper into my motivations, to challenge my assumptions, to question why things are the way they are.

I’m not an angry person (or maybe that depends–have I had my coffee? have I eaten? how much stupidity have I had to deal with on top of an exhausting day?) I just really feel very deeply and while I used to be ashamed about this, I’ve learned to write–to listen to others, to understand myself, to see things as I know them to be true.

Here is a record of my mourning. A diary of sorts, a record of every Facebook post I’ve made since becoming aware of the fate of those who died in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

January 26, 10:14pm Could we kindly ask all media outlets to please refrain from publishing images and videos showing the mangled bodies of our PNP-SAF? Everyone publishing it has apologized or warned us about their use which proves to me that they know it’s not correct and yet they insist on publishing it anyway–for whose right to know, I wonder? What benefit is it to the public and to the families of those who’ve lost loved ones to have these images shared online? What is the justifiable need to have these photos out for consumption? Where is the respect and dignity for the dead?

January 27, 8:49pm All-out-war and Auschwitz on my feed. I don’t want to be a kill joy especially when friends make jokes about the South, talk funny about “terrorists,” or give Muslim-sounding nicknames to bearded friends. I try to convince myself that it’s all just humor–then again, I have friends in the deep South and even without them, books taught me that things like the Holocaust happen. Who’s left to laugh then? Bleeding heart over all those who were killed in Mamasapano. They are proof that a world like ours needs tolerance, peace, and compassion.

But God, today, I nearly bit my tongue off holding in the need to tell so many people that they’re assholes for wanting to go to war. Assholes.

January 28, 10:11pm My to do list: To embrace the mothers, the fathers, the wives, and the children of the fallen. To embrace my friends in the AFP and the PNP. To tell them that their sacrifice isn’t wasted on rhetoric, isn’t lost on us. To affirm that without them and their engagement there can be no lasting peace. To convince them that though there is a chain of command, it is to the people that they are accountable–not to legacies of proud men. To say, with full conviction, that they have served US–THE FILIPINO PEOPLE–well. Justice is the measure, justice is the measure.

January 29  Sir, all due respect, your men needed you today more than yesterday. No need for speeches, frills, and thrills–just your presence on the tarmac so those left behind wouldn’t feel as alone as they do now. The power of your presence, not the presence of your power–which they already respect because no matter what you tell them to do, they will do it as part of their duty. Karangalan po nilang paglingkuran tayo, trabaho po nila ito. 42 caskets arrived in Manila today bearing only some of the deceased. 42 people.

January 29  Today was emotionally taxing. Exhausted, weary but very much moved by the Chaplain who earlier prayed for a sense of belonging–that we might all feel like we belong to one family, one nation.

Time stops when we lose lives the way we did but work continues. It must. What did I learn today? I learned to value purpose and responsibility. In the context of management, what gives employees pride is knowing they can get things done, knowing they contribute to a greater whole. In the context of a nation, it’s that reminder that we are all accountable to and for each other. No more comments on leadership. Basta, my sense of belonging is intact–I know and am responsible for you. Thank you ‪#‎SAF44‬ for taking care of me.

January 29   A Cautionary Tale of Mourning. At around this time last year, I lost a few friends to a horrible bus accident in Bontoc. What I learned then was that sometimes, though we see the capacity of events to become “triggers for reform” and “better ways of doing things,” it pays to just be present to the pain of those who lose their nearest and dearest. Without meaning to judge, past or present, let me just explain: I watched then as some of the bereaved became driven by the loss they felt coupled with the public’s ire and anger to protest. Granted, it’s their right and I support them, because better transport benefits all–part of me felt like I needlessly fed the grieving person’s pain and anxiety. It struck me then that we, that I, fought on the energy of my conviction and yet returned to the comfort and joy of my family while friends related to the deceased did not.

What of those who lose people and fight only to come home to empty beds, quiet rooms where the laughter no longer echoes? Does our anger console them–did mine? Or did it cast a darker shade on an already moonless night?

I feel the need to explain because I’ve just left a comment on the wall of a former government official. Many of them have spoken and some journalists have compelled them all to share their expertise. The result is a flood of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what should have been dones’–and I catch myself nodding saying, “Oo nga naman! Talaga” or “What a hypocrite!”

But the truth is–we are not there anymore–we are HERE where so many on all sides have fallen. Families are grieving. Do we really want to manipulate them (the way we do with the poor, the farmers, the fisherfolk, transgender men and women, and all other marginalized sectors) when they are most vulnerable–just so we can pat ourselves on the back and say we are right? Or so we can move agendas forward but remain divided, hurt, broken (in the truly Jesuit sense)?

This is the message I left on that person’s wall (I hope he reads this and understands what compelled me to call him out on his ‘what if’):

Well Sir, all due respect, you aren’t president. I understand your frustration but I wonder how much it helps to share these kinds of opinions at a moment when tensions are high and emotions tend to cloud people’s judgment? Is this really what a nation in mourning needs to hear? Granted, everyone has a way to do (or not do) what needs to be done. I share the public’s hurt but feel that now is the time to be in solidarity with those who lost loved ones. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother who, on top of mourning for a deceased son, must also make room for suspicion and anxiety. That said, I do truly respect your having been there, and done that–but all the more, I count on you and those you served with to exercise the kind of leadership we all criticize the current administration for not having.

January 30, 1:31pmEverybody complains about the speech but I wonder how many of you would find the words and the wisdom eloquent enough to please everyone? To capture the essence of the hurt and hard choices? As part of our mourning, maybe we can also reflect on our own shortcomings? THE FACT THAT WE AREN’T ALWAYS WORTH OUR SOLDIER’S LIVES. Maybe it’s good to examine choices we make? How many times have we let ourselves down? Wasted the blood of the young, the upright. Yabang lang natin to criticize but always remember–the pain is not yours. It belongs to the families, the leaders who make tough decisions. Remember too what Mr. Noli Taliño said: Get to know your men and women in uniform. Listen to them, listen to understand–not to judge. Perhaps when we make individual choices about who to vote, when to duck a ticket, or break the law, or cheat–we might remember the 44?

Sorry, but just for today, let’s declare a Twitter/Facebook truce and stop spitting on the graves of these valiant men. Let’s grieve, not opine.

Sarap maging Pilipino kapag may SAF na proprotekta sa’yo. Salamat mga kapatid. Mabuhay kayo!

January 30, 11:44pm Met with the families of our 44 and bade our men goodbye. It was a night of sweet stories–what they were like as fathers, what their wives loved about them, what their friends used to call them. Moved by the sacrifice of the Bisayas and the Mindanaoans–but became very, very emotional when I realized that I understood the Ilocano vocabulary for grief. So many of them from places I know by heart. Kakabsat ko, Dios ti agngina. Agyamanak kinyayu.

Off they go–I had the supreme pleasure of practicing Iloko tonight and you know what moved me? During the departure honors, SAF officers were lined up saluting the fallen. I positioned myself near the doorway where the women were and as each casket passed, tears streamed down their faces as they held their salute. Later, I asked if they served with these men and one of them said, “Haan ngem uray han mi nga gagayem, kakabbsat mi amin da.” (No, they aren’t our friends but all of them are our brothers.) #salute

January 30, 12:19am Public grieving is a bit funny. Watched ex-generals, some personalities awkwardly approach–some held my hand thinking I was family and in loud voices offered condolences, gave advice as to what medals the boys should have taken home etc etc. Naturally, I couldn’t take the bullshit so I smiled and closed my eyes. Meanwhile, the President and his cabinet members are in a holding room able to comfortably speak to and grieve privately with the families and the SAF Commandos. Maraming salamat din, Sir. Nabalitaan ko sa mga asawa, kapatid, at magulang ng magigiting na naginhawaan daw sila. Happy to be proven wrong. Pero siyempre, justice is the measure. Justice is the measure.

January 31 Overheard last night: “Magiting rin pala ang pulis noh? Hindi pala sila lahat masama.” We have been afraid of them, rightly so because of the few abusive ones who make justice elusive for many. But my takeaway from all of this is understanding institutions. They are complex and not to be judged as a whole but one thing is certain: good men and women, people of integrity–they are the key.

Borrowed words on staying the course.

“…Doing the things you don’t want to do is like running an engine that pushes everything else forward. If you stop doing the things you don’t want to do, because you just don’t want to or don’t feel like it, you also stop paving the way toward fulfilling your goals.

There’s something that happens when you force yourself to do the things you really don’t want to do. It’s a way of feeding yourself power. It’s a way of making yourself stronger. It’s a way of leading as an expression of your passion and commitment, and not necessarily your feelings. It’s a statement, or a declaration, that your commitment is bigger than the circumstances, and that your will is stronger than your [sometimes] lazy mind…”

[Luisa A. Igloria, poet]

Learning to feed myself power–learning to string words together even if (especially when) I don’t feel like it.